Alex Zilka has been a member of the predominantly gay Chicago Rowing Union (CRU) for about a year, and he's hookedand ready to represent the team on the worldwide stage.
Zilka is leading five CRU members from Chicago, and three others, overseas at the end of July to compete in World Outgames III, running from July 31-Aug. 11 in Antwerp, Belgium.
The quadrennial, multi-sport event is expected to draw 5,000 athletes from 80 countries around the world to compete in 32 sports. There also will be a three-day human-rights conference, plus the Mister Gay World competition, along with international speakers, and parties, parties and more parties.
Outgames organizers are predicting 6,300 medals will be awarded and the event will include about 1,500 volunteers.
The Outgames was first held in Montreal in 2006, and then in Copenhagen in 2010. CRU members also participated in Copenhagen.
"I love to travel, so just the prospect of going to Belgium was pretty exciting to me," said Zilka, 31, who lives in Lakeview and is a social studies teacher at New Trier High School in the suburbs. He is openly gay and had a civil union to Mike Pattarozzi, 38, in December 2011.
Pattarozzi also is heading overseas, though as a cheerleader of sorts. The other CRU members heading to Belgium are team coxswain Katie Stuckemeyer, Vince McCollum, Georgi Botev, Paulo Dennis Son and Randy Mitchell. Plus, former CRU coach Eric Sipos, who now lives in Philadelphia, will be attending too, along with Andrew Keller from Syracuse University and Paul Wollaston from Toronto.
"There's something really exciting for me to be able to compete on an international stage," said Zilka, originally from Cleveland; he moved to Chicago in 2004. "To compete on the gay front, with the international gay community, this just seems like a really exciting opportunity to connect with peopleand showcase the team."
CRU was founded in 2005 by 12 rowers as a team for Chicago's Gay Games in 2006. CRU is the Midwest's only LGBT rowing organization, and one of three such clubs in the world. The team is a mix of men and women, with a wide variety of ages and experience levels.
Originally named Qrew Chicago, the team's name changed to Chicago Rowing Union in 2009.
"I'm nervous, but very excited," Zilka said. "The CRU team has had practices specific for the Outgames crew. We seem to be in sync, so I think we'll have a strong group, a strong showing.
"Being part of the LGBT community, I think it's really fantastic that events such as the Outgames allow LGBT people and athletes to come together, compete together. It seems like it will be a really positive experienceand the international aspect makes it that much more exciting, and truly a great way to connect people from around the world with the same sexual-orientation, or gender-identity, as well as their passion for athletics."
Zilka has never participated in the World Outgames or the Gay Games.
"It's wonderful to be representing Chicago at the Outgames," Zilka said. "I'm also excited to check out some of the other athletic events. There are a lot of events and/or sports that should be fun to watch."
Zilka said he's thrilled to share the experience with Pattarozzi. "I feel lucky he is willing, and enthusiastic, to run off on an adventure like this with me. That means a lot to me," Zilka said.
"I have made some amazing, wonderful, strong friendships with people who I row with, and I've very excited to travel with them and compete at the Outgames."
Zilka will, no doubt, share stories from overseas with students back in the suburbs, certainly the Trevians' crew team, even though he has no affiliation with that New Trier team, nor are any Trevians also members of CRU. "New Trier has a pretty amazing crew team, so, by getting involved with CRU, it's been a pretty neat way to connect and relate to some of my students who row crew as well. That's been wonderful," he said.